Part 3: Mental Cross Training Through Integrated Curricula
Where it all started for me
A few years ago, I was part of an educational think tank. One of my colleagues on this think tank pulled me aside one day to discuss an idea she had. There was a national grant competition called Project XQ, which offered up to 10 schools a $10 million grant to rethink traditional high school. My colleague had some brilliant ideas and wanted to apply for the grant. One other colleague from the think tank and I joined her. We made it to the semifinalists, but in the end, we didn’t get the grant; the process, however, took me to places in my teaching I never would have considered.
We explored loads of research and even tested ideas in our own classrooms. Ultimately, we fashioned our design on the concept of “what if.” We were constantly questioning current practices and asking each other what if it could look different, what if we could change, what if… As a result of the think tank we had all been exploring the possibilities of PBL, autonomous learning, STEAM, 21st Century Skills, and instilling the joy of learning in our students for the past few years. We certainly wanted to continue with this, but one piece kept coming back again and again: it came down to whether or not our students retained what they learned, saw relevance in it, and knew how to use what they learned.
I later began exploring the development of teaching students what I call Mental Cross Training—which is essentially integrated curricula (also known as interdisciplinary learning)—focused in what John Hattie calls problem solving teaching (PBL at the right time). When I say integrated curricula, I mean NOT learning separate subjects as isolated content and ways of thinking, but rather learning various contents and ways of thinking used together to solve or create something.
Why is Integrated Curricula Important?
Interdisciplinary learning, when correctly used, helps students with 3 Critical Aspects of Learning:
These 4 aspects are held together with what I call the glue of integrated curricula, which is the idea of teaching students to organize and connect what they’re learning, while they’re learning. This concept alone called "Organizing and transforming conceptual knowledge” has one of the largest effects on learning, period.
How Integrated Curricula Works: Mental Cross Training
One of the best ways for students to use what they’ve learned is by encouraging creativity or fostering an environment where student can demonstrate their creativity. When I say creativity, I mean one’s ability to draw upon information and combine ideas in a novel way. So, interdisciplinary projects, if structured in the right way, encourage students to make those connections and synthesize the information to create... something.
In the most watched TED Talk of all time “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” Sir Ken Robinson asserts the definition that creativity is “the process of having original ideas that have value.” Robinson continues to elaborate on when this process is most evident. That it “more often than not comes about through the interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things.” In other words, combining ideas from various contents and disciplines.
Here’s why I think of it like mental cross training: we typically think of cross training for sports, which can be defined as “the action or practice of engaging in two or more sports or types of exercise in order to improve fitness or performance in one's main sport.” Just as an athlete might use their improved flexibility and balance, from say ballet, to improve his ability on the football field, so too can students improve their understanding and thinking by connecting the dots between content and disciplines. Thus, interdisciplinary learning opens new neural pathways in a network that strengthens and deepens learning. Ultimately, it helps students retain what they know, apply it in new situations, and develop intrinsic motivation.
To be clear, this is not the same as general education courses. Although it may be the implicit intention, students rarely if ever are encouraged to make connections between their general ed courses. (Although I am currently consulting a university to change their general ed courses to be more integrated, so we'll get there eventually.)
I’m also not just talking about STEM or STEAM education, although integrated curricula (and PBL) is the backbone of them, I’m talking about empowering students to utilize content and ways of thinking between multiple subjects—but any subjects that might be useful for the purpose--not just the STEM subjects.
I’ll share some examples at the end of the post of interdisciplinary projects from STEM/STEAM to fine arts and entrepreneurship.
Guiding Principles of Integrated Curricula
There are four main principles to consider with integrated curricula: Purpose, Methods, Forms, and Content.
1. Common Purpose
This is arguably the most important. Having a common purpose links together all of the subjects and helps students see relevance in what they’re learning—which is one of the main reasons why this works so well. Because I teach at the secondary level, the first interdisciplinary project I started was between teachers of varying subjects, so it was crucial we developed a common purpose that would drive the content sequence, skills development, etc. Your purpose can vary in scope and complexity but the most common is focusing on a problem (a purpose for a fine arts focus may be entering a film festival).
(After not getting the Project XQ Grant, I decided to pitch a piece of the idea to our administration. I chose STEM because I knew it would be more likely to be accepted, but any integrated subjects—I’ll mention a few ideas further down—centered around a common purpose will work. Click here to find out more about the first STEM Program I developed).
The method is the process or HOW you’ll achieve the purpose. I prefer PBL (specifically problem & project based learning) as the primary method. As a result of running variations of Genius Hour in my classroom for the past few years, I had developed relationships with teachers in several contents who were interested in what I had been doing and willing to help. So, when I pitched the idea back in 2015 to these teachers of developing a cohort of students in an integrated model, they jumped on the chance to try out PBL (or what John Hattie would call Problem Solving Teaching).
PBL is not the only method, although as I write it, I can’t think of other methods that would facilitate the same type of integration, engagement, and empowerment.
I think of few questions when considering forms: what are the tools of the discipline? What skills are needed to solve the problem or create the product? What lenses of thinking are best used? And what form will the resulting evidence of my work take? I teach English and have always tried to instill in my students that English is about thinking. We read to spark ideas, and for enjoyment of course, we write to communicate our ideas and if notes are really taken effectively, we use writing to develop our thoughts.
A few years back I mentioned this to a science teacher colleague. She responded, “well yeah, I teach thinking too. That is my main goal.” Just then a math teacher nearby overheard and emphatically chimed in, “Me too! Math is all about teaching them to think! Problem solving right?!” This interaction made me realize something though. Yes, we all teach our students to think (although if not done explicitly most students don’t realize that’s what your intention is), but most disciplines have various ways of thinking. An analytical scientist is not going to approach a problem with the same way of thinking as a Disney cartoonist, and that’s a great thing! Each content teaches the form of thinking that experts in that field would use. But integrated curriculum is about learning to use various forms of thinking from different disciplines to solve or create something. Ideally, students learn to create end products that experts would make. In other words, if an engineer is solving a problem, she might build a product to solve that problem. She won’t write an essay or create a poster board. She might, on the other hand, create a prototype or designs, write a report, give a presentation to a board, etc. Ensure the end product takes the form that fits the purpose. Imagine an interdisciplinary think tank coming together to solve a problem. What would they make in the end? That’s what the students should do too. Form then is two sided: the lenses of thinking and skills and the form the end product takes.
4. Content & Knowledge
Because of standardized testing and countless requirements piled onto teachers, this is often at the forefront of our minds—constantly. Unfortunately, it should come last. If we think of backward design with PBL, it should look something like this:
Knowledge is crucial! And let’s face it, at the end of the day as school teachers, it’s really the only thing we’re accountable for in most places. BUT, if your purpose, methods, and forms are aligned the standards and content are relatively adaptable.
Covering content won’t work with integrated curricula because students aren’t learning what they need to solve or make something, they’re just learning in a sequence that someone decided they needed to learn. Yes, a lot of content is sequential, but then it’s even more important to design your integrated curriculum in a way that develops students’ necessary foundational knowledge so it can be used later.
One of the greats strengths of interdisciplinary projects is that students see relevance in what they're learning because they can connect and apply it to what they’re doing. If they’re learning something that can’t be applied, and they don’t see how it builds their foundations, trust me when I say it will be forgotten. And what’s the point of teaching something they’re going to forget?
One of the best elementary teachers I know chose to focus her integrated curricula thematically around a guiding question. Either a problem to be solved or ideas to explore. Each subject taught during the unit was then focused in giving students the dispositions, skills, and knowledge they needed to appropriately respond to the guiding question (solve a problem, make product, etc.). The content, forms, and methods were all chosen depending on the guiding question and the teacher’s purpose. Content especially was chosen carefully to address the essential question. Another aspect I loved about her classroom, rather than ask for general supplies at the beginning of the year, she had her students get lab coats, goggles, etc. Can you imagine how curious those kids are from day one?
The Glue of Interdisciplinary Teaching
There’s one final piece that ties this all together. I get asked all of the time why an English teacher led a STEM program. I love this question. It comes back to the forms of thinking. As English teachers, we have more freedom than most teachers. You see, in most places we can choose our content. Unlike science, math, health, or social studies, our standards are focused in teaching students what to do with information when they receive it and how to convey their interpretations and analysis clearly. What the students engage with is entirely up to us. (There are varying degrees of this kind of freedom from subject to subject and even between schools. Social studies might have some freedoms in this regard, arts and even science, but unfortunately not much in math, which can be difficult). As English teachers, we instruct our students to infer meaning from various texts, connect ideas to synthesize and create, and to develop their thinking as new information is received. Now, I’m not saying English teachers are the glue of integrated curricula (despite my obvious bias), but I am saying that there are some crucial aspects of what English teachers do that are often left out in STEM/STEAM, and one in particular that could prove to be critical to success: recording information (thoughts, ideas, steps in an experiment, sketches, etc.).
Learn more on ways to teach recording in any content in these two posts:
Examples of integrated curricula projects and the classes that might be involved
Matt Strock is a passionate teacher, instructional coach, experience designer, learning & development consultant, speaker, writer, life-long learner, maker, change maker, and innovator.
The pilcrow or paragraph symbol was originally used to signify "the beginning of a train of thought." The Pilcrow Times began in my classroom with texts specifically chosen to spark thoughts and ideas that most students wouldn't normally consider with the intention to create a cognitive shift..